By Eric Johnson
The ability to earn one’s own salvation is an important distinction in the teachings of the Mormon Church. Using the Book of Mormon passage that a person is saved “by grace after all (he or she) can do” (2 Nephi 25:23), LDS leaders throughout the years have made it abundantly clear that grace only takes a person to the dance, but the onus of one’s salvation is placed on the shoulders of the members and their good works.
This was made very clear in Seventy Jorge F. Zeballos’s message titled “Attempting the Impossible,” which he delivered during the Fall 2009 General Conference; it is printed in the November 2009 Ensign (pp. 33-34), an official magazine of the LDS Church. Let’s provide some of Zeballos’s quotes to show what I mean:
Quoting 3 Nephi 12:48 (“Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect”), Zeballos said that the Father and Jesus “are the models to be followed by each one of us.” It ought to be pointed out that this passage obviously came from Matt. 5:48;
Zeballos said, “From a purely human point of view, at first this seems to be an impossible task. However, it begins to appear possible upon understanding that in order to achieve it, we are not alone.” Those he says will help an individual attain this perfection include the Father and Jesus.
He then quotes D&C 14:7, which says, “And if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.” Zeballos promises that “this divine promise is possible to achieve.”
Attaining this, he said, is necessary if we hope to “live with our Father and with our families forevermore.” In fact, “should not this promise be the greatest incentive to do the best within our reach and give the best of ourselves in pursuit of what has been promised to us?”
“These rewards,” he said, “will be for those who nurture faith in Jesus Christ and comply with His will to work, sacrifice, and give all they have received to strengthen and build the kingdom of God.”
Furthermore, “the fulfillment of the divine promise to have eternal life, to achieve perfection, and to be happy forevermore in the family unit is subject to the sincere demonstration of our faith in Jesus Christ, obedience to the commandments, perseverance, and diligence throughout our lives.”
Fascinatingly enough, he declares, “The Lord does not expect that we do what we cannot achieve. The command to become perfect, as He is, encourages us to achieve the best of ourselves… (and) to realize our potential as children of God.”
He adds, “The invitation and challenge to become perfect, to achieve eternal life is for all mankind.”
After motivating his audience to achieve perfection, Zeballos appears to back off from his hard teaching. This is indicated when he said, “God will not require more than the best we can give because that would not be just, but neither can He accept less than that because that would not be just either. Therefore, let us always give the best we can in the service of God and our fellowmen…. Let us do the best we can and each day be a little better.”
The “trying your best” idea has been around for a long time, but 12th President Spencer W. Kimball said this was a weak position. Kimball wrote the following in his 1969 book The Miracle of Forgiveness: “Nor is repentance complete when one merely tries to abandon sin. To try with a weakness of attitude and effort is to assure failure in the face of Satan’s strong counteracting efforts. What is needed is resolute action” (p. 164).
Kimball then tells a story of a soldier who told his officer that he would “try” to fulfill an order. After he was reprimanded, the soldier told the officer that he would do his “best.” When the officer rejected this as not being good enough, the soldier said that he would “do it or die.” Kimball wrote, “To this the now irate officer responded: ‘I don’t want you to die, and I don’t want you merely to do the best you can, and I don’t want you to try. Now, the request is a reasonable one; the message is important; the distance is not far; you are able-bodied; you can do what I have ordered. Now get out of here and accomplish your mission’” (p. 164).
To conclusively show that to try one’s best is all that the LDS God requires, Kimball concluded the section this way: “To ‘try’ is weak. To ‘do the best I can’ is not strong. We must always do better than we can. This is true in every walk of life…. With the inspiration from the Lord we can rise higher than our individual powers, extend far beyond our own personal potential” (p. 165).
Perhaps Zeballos knew that trying is weak, because toward the end of his sermon he appears to revert back to his original hard-line stance. In the last minute of his sermon, he provided a line from the title of his sermon that made things appear very clear: “Even when, from a purely human perspective, perfection can appear an impossible challenge to achieve, I testify that our Father and our Savior have made known to us that it is possible to achieve the impossible. Yes, it is possible to achieve eternal life. Yes, it is possible to be happy now and forever (emphasis mine).”
What a confusing message! According to this LDS general authority who was speaking at a general conference—a place where doctrine can be taught and clarified before the membership—complete obedience is necessary. The only way a person can find happiness is achieving the impossible. Yet can anyone actually achieve what is impossible?